Friday, February 10, 2012

In Review: Life, and Nothing More... (1992)


A few days after the devastating June 1990 Manjil-Rudbar earthquake that resulted in 40,000 fatalities and left 500,000 more homeless, a film director (Ferhed Kherdamend) and his son Puya (Buba Bayour) drive to the afflicted area in Northern Iran in search of Babek and Ahmad Ahmadpour, the stars of the unnamed filmmaker’s earlier feature, Where is the Friend’s House? (a 1987 release that was in reality directed by Abbas Kiarostami with the Ahmadpour’s starring).  As the father and son traverse the congested trunk highways and the treacherously steep dirt roads that lead to the village of Koker, they discuss a telecommunications tower and argue about the participants of a World Cup football match on the night of the quake; the boy and his father look on at the endless rows of survivors digging out from the mountains of rubble; and they ask various locals for directions to and news from the Ahmadpour’s Koker.  The film director and his son also give rides to a handful of the earlier film’s actors, each of whom they encounter traveling by foot.

Among these is an older gentleman who playfully objects to having been made up to look older for Where is the Friend’s House?.  The director and Puya pause in the old man’s village, with the former also conversing with newlywed Hossein (Hossein Rezai; this scene is replicated with Kherdamend and Rezai, as actors, playing the same roles in Kiarostami’s subsequent Through the Olive Trees, 1994) and the latter explaining to a bereaved mother that God was not the author of the deaths, the earthquake was.  After recommencing with their drive, the pair picks up another of the film’s actors, transporting the boy to his makeshift hillside home as he and Puya debate the World Cup final.  There, the film director inquires of a couple of pre-adolescent girls as to why they believe they survived, before leaving his son to watch a football match with his new acquaintances.  Once back on the road, the director learns that the Ahmadpour’s were just then spotted walking back to their village.  After giving a ride to yet another of his child actors, he speeds to reach the family in Koker, with his small hatchback struggling to climb the region’s hazardous inclines.  Following an aborted first attempt on the second of two towering hills, the film director reaches the top where he picks up a pedestrian who had aided him at the bottom of the ascent.  The two continue on with the film’s Vivaldi score reaching an uplifting crescendo as the picture fades to black.


Conventionally considered the second of director Abbas Kiarostami’s undesignated ‘Koker trilogy,’ following Where is the Friend’s House? and preceding Through the Oliver Trees, Life,and Nothing More… (1992) positions itself between fact and fiction as it presents a Kiarostami-double “film director” in his search for Babek and Ahmad Ahmadpour, the child actors of Kiarostami’s (and his) feature Where is the Friend’s House?.  Though the film’s narrative, implicitly modeled on Kiarostami’s presumed real-life attempt to locate the Ahmadpour’s after the June 1990 Manjil-Rudbar earthquake, unfolds within a week of the tragedy, a greater temporal gap from the time of the earthquake to that of the shooting is belied by the autumnal colors that mimetically reinforce the mass casualties (e.g. the death) afflicting the region.  In this way, the film maintains a looser relationship to its stated temporal coordinates, and thus to the reality it is presenting, than is stipulated by the narrative.  Enough time has intervened to call into question whether the results of Kiarostami’s search – parallel to the ‘film director’s’ – were as uncertain as they were made to appear.

All of this is to say that Life, and Nothing More… is only made to look like a documentary masquerading as a fiction film.  In reality, Life, and Nothing More… is a fiction film that looks like a documentary pretending to be a fiction film.  Kiarostami’s subsequent Through the Olive Trees usefully clarifies Life, and Nothing More…’s deceptive ontological status: by virtue of the multiple takes of the 1994 film’s reconstruction of the film director-Hossein encounter in Life, and Nothing More…, the spectator is asked retrospectively to identify the earlier film’s identical scene as a construct, with the labor involved in its production – the crew behind the camera, and conceivably, multiple takes – erased from the resulting film.  Ultimately, Life, and Nothing More… is fiction to its narratological core, even if the objects of the filmmaker’s quest and their physical environment present a historical reality.    

In this latter respect, Life, and Nothing More… does document, even if it cannot claim the status of documentary.  Though the destruction is not as new as the spectator is made to believe, nor does everything he or she sees constitute a single day of filming, which is in both instances to say ‘though the film is fiction,’ the contents of the mise-en-scène once again belong to the regime of non-fiction.  This is the destruction wrought by the Manjil-Rudbar earthquake in northwest Iran.  These are the people whose houses have been destroyed and their loved ones lost.  This is the work that they must now perform as they seek to dig out one obliterated village after another.  Hence, it is a film populated by demonstratives, to use the linguistic term, even as it retains the fictional valence that distinguishes the picture from the documentary mode.  Kiarostami’s film combines these two modes, no less than the director’s previous, documentary-form Close-Up (1990), forging a double-helix of fact and fiction that everywhere underlies the work.  As such, Life, and Nothing More… becomes the confirmation of André Bazin’s realist film program, which itself sought to emphasize moments of non-fiction within narrative cinema’s fictional frames. 

It is unsurprising then that Life, and Nothing More… shares much of its aesthetic with the 1950s work of Bazinian exemplar Roberto Rossellini: for instance, as in Rossellini’s fount of post-war cinematic modernism, Voyage in Italy (1954), Life, and Nothing More… favors long takes of the surrounding landscapes shot through the speckled windows of moving automobiles.  Though rural landscapes were certainly present in Where is the Friend’s House? and modes of transport (a car, bus, motorcycle) featured prominently in the urban Close-Up, Life, and Nothing More… combines the two to produce an idiom that would help to define Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema throughout the 1990s – the era, at the time of this writing, of his greatest international repute.  Throughout this decade, Kiarostami alternates between wordless compositions shot through the windshields of his moving automobiles; figural close-ups of his protagonists conversing inside; and longer compositions of the vehicles snaking through hilly terrain, with his performers’ conversations remaining audible, even when their vehicles become miniscule in contrast to the surrounding landscapes.

Indeed, Kiarostami’s “unfinished” aesthetic crystallizes in the last of these strategies, with their powerful use of concealed spaces, as it does further in a narrative that invites its viewers to complete the dramatic arc[i]: in Life, and Nothing More…, Kiarostami leaves the filmmaker’s reunion with the Ahmadpour’s unseen, and thus open to viewer speculation, not that Kiarostami doesn’t suggest an ending in his spritely choice of music (along with the visual hint he provides in a group of tiny figures – the Ahmadpour’s? – walking across a distant horizon).  It is finally in this gap between absence and presence, as in the film’s slippery navigation of fact and fiction, where Kiarostami’s achievement is manifest.

Life, and Nothing More…

English Title: Life, and Nothing More…/And Life Goes On…
Original Title: Zendegi va digar hich…
Country of Origin: Iran
Production Company: Kanoon (Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults)
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Producer: Ali Reza Zarin
Screenplay: Abbas Kiarostami
Director of Photography: Homayoun Payvar
Editor: Abbas Kiarostami
Music: Antonio Vivaldi
Sound Recording: Abbas Kiarostami and Changiz Sayyad
Runtime: 91 mins.
Genre: Drama/Art House
Color: Color

For additional pieces by this author on Abbas Kiarostami and the Iranian cinema, please check out Directory of World Cinema: Iran, Parviz Jahed, ed. (Chicago: Intellect for The University of Chicago Press, 2012). 

[i] See Abbas Kiarostami’s “An Unfinished Cinema,” printed for the Centenary of Cinema, Paris, 1995:

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